How Prohibition Reinvented Drinking In America
One hundred years ago, America banned the sale of alcohol, killing some industries and kicking off a new era of cocktail culture.
The Prohibition era is now fully embedded in American mythology. Just hear the word, and a visual pops into your head, almost unbidden—secret entrances to dimly lit speakeasies, flappers and jazz, a sense of forbidden revelry.
The reality was a good deal less glamorous; for every bacchanal in a sultry Manhattan club, there were countless more illicit alcohol poisonings, corrupt cops, and gang shootings. And the alcohol you could get was likely to be sub-standard at best.
"The majority of speakeasies would have been filled with people hiding, doing something illegal—drinking poorly made drinks made with whatever booze they could get their hands on," says Gareth Evans, global brand ambassador for Absolut Elyx.
It wasn't the best time to sip a cocktail. And yet Prohibition has had an indelible impact on how Americans drink, even a century down the road—from introducing new spirits to bringing women into drinking life. On the hundredth anniversary of the enactment of Prohibition, here's a look at its impact on how we drink today.
What Prohibition Did (and Didn't) Mean
As of midnight on January 17, 1920, it became illegal to buy or sell wine, beer, and spirits (with limited exceptions). It was not illegal to drink alcohol. So the last days before Prohibition were a scramble to purchase every bottle in sight. The well-to-do had the means, connections, and physical space to buy up entire shops' worth of wine or Scotch; the less well-off made their own way.
It's abundantly clear that Prohibition did not shut down drinking in America. Just the legal aspect. "From the very beginning, those who wanted to drink inevitably found a way," writes Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Some methods were above-board, somewhat: Whiskey could be prescribed by a doctor for "medicinal purposes," for instance. But laws were openly flouted from day one. European spirits ferried from offshore; whisky smuggled down from Canada or rum from the Caribbean; "gin" created from industrial alcohol, diluted and flavored with juniper oil as a poor facsimile; moonshine distilled illegally in Southern backwoods operations.
Quipped newsman Malcolm Bingay, as cited in Last Call, "It was impossible to get a drink in Detroit, unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear above the uproar."
What We Lost
So it wasn't hard to get a drink in Prohibition-era America. But as the entire alcohol trade moved underground, it was virtually impossible to have any guarantee of quality. "Speakeasy liquor could have been anything from single-malt Scotch smuggled in by way of Nassau to diluted embalming fluid," writes Okrent.
Thousands of family-run distilleries, many of them prominent names with long histories, went out of business. Bars all over the country closed their doors. And whereas pre-Prohibition America enjoyed a golden age of the cocktail—an enormous number of the drinks we understand as "classics" emerged from late-19th century American establishments, whether public bars or private clubs—a sophisticated cocktail culture all but collapsed.
If you can't guarantee a spirit, after all, you can't guarantee the quality of a drink. An Old Fashioned with rotgut whiskey is appalling; a martini with "gin" of unknown provenance is, too.
So while many European distilleries and wineries have centuries of history, few American spirits brands truly have roots pre-Prohibition. (The ones that do often sold whiskey for medicinal purposes.) Prohibition led to consolidation; only a handful breweries survived, setting the stage for a few major players still dominating the beer market today.
And beer, at least, fully survived Prohibition; no cider producers could claim the same. From the earliest settlers of America straight through 1920, hard cider was an enormously popular drink—particularly in the Northeast, given the ready supply of fruit—consumed as eagerly as lagers and ales. After Prohibition, it was all but forgotten; only in recent years has it begun to make a resurgence, though it's unlikely to ever regain its early dominance.
And a great deal of institutional knowledge was lost. "Prohibition did a lot of damage to the idea of bartending as a career, as it made the job seem seedy and unseemly," says Gareth Evans. "The hangover (pun definitely intended) from the temperance movement still exists to this day."
New Spirits on the Scene
And yet, an era defined by banning alcohol led to developments in the drinking world, too. "During Prohibition, alcohol that could be smuggled over the nation's borders grew more popular—tequila from the south and Canadian whisky from the north," says Camper English, cocktail and spirits writer who wrote about several "upsides" of Prohibition on his site Alcademics.
Even after Prohibition was repealed, those effects lingered. "Canadian whisky surged in popularity," says Gareth Evans. "After repeal, consumers rushed to buy alcohol again, but America's favorite spirit—whiskey—needs to be aged. There wasn't enough stock to satisfy demand. So thirsty Americans turned their eyes North."
Produced throughout the Caribbean, rum became another attractive option. "Rum was extremely popular during Prohibition, especially in New York," says Kenneth McCoy, Partner at The Rum House. And while in the Northeast, rum was smuggled into the city, Americans closer to the Caribbean (or those of ample means) went right to the source.
"Prohibition drove many wealthy Americans to Cuba and other tropical ports in search of rum-based cocktails," says Camper English. Spirits brands were savvy enough to encourage this kind of booze tourism through marketing—and a little glad-handing.
"Bacardi recognized an opportunity to bring Americans to its home of Cuba to teach them about rum and cocktail culture," according to Rachel Dorion, a fifth-generation member of the Bacardi family. "The company responded with postcards—the 1920s version of a social media campaign—to put the tropical paradise of rum on the map." Bacardi sent bartender Pappy Valiente to the airport to actually greet incoming guests with a daiquiri in-hand.
Thus cocktails like the daiquiri and the mojito, still popular today, became familiar through Prohibition; Bacardi itself, now the best-selling rum in the United States, did too.
And the accelerated production of rum during Prohibition led to a cocktail movement that's still popular today—tiki culture. "Rum-centric tiki bars first opened right after Prohibition in the 1930s, but really took off after WWII ended in the 1940s," explains Camper English.
"In this tumultuous era of uneven supply, a lot of rum sat around aging in casks." And with delicious aged rum so plentiful, enterprising bar owners found a way to use it. "When Trader Vic created the Mai Tai in 1944, it was first made with 17-year-old rum from Jamaica. Blended rum from multiple islands became one of the signatures of tiki drinks."
Cocktails and Traditions
In the United States, the 1920s were hardly a golden era of cocktails. But they did set off a diaspora of bartending talent, and beyond the shores, American bartenders continued to be inventive.
"The main drinks to come out of Prohibition weren't actually from the US, but rather from elsewhere as an indirect result," explains Gareth Evans. "The top American bartenders could obviously not get work anymore at home, so they moved to the big bars of Paris, London, and closer to home—in Cuba." The Mary Pickford—a lesser-known classic of rum, pineapple, grenadine, and maraschino, named for a silent film star of the day—is among them.
And while mixers were certainly in use before Prohibition, they became far more popular in that era—the better to disguise questionable liquor with, of course. Faux-gin tasted better with tonic than in a martini; bootleg whiskey was more palatable with ginger ale than with soda. And Coca-Cola made out like gangbusters, selling both to the teetotalers and the imbibers desperate to mask the taste of what they drank.
Enter the Women
Prohibition didn't just change what Americans drank; it changed who drank together. Given that speakeasies were places with few rules, women enjoyed them just as men did.
"The old American saloons were typically for men only—and part of the Prohibition movement wasn't completely anti-alcohol, but rather anti-saloon," says Camper English. "Whereas speakeasies open during Prohibition, as well as home cocktail parties, were often open to both men and women. Post-prohibition, things stayed that way, in the new supper clubs and cocktail bars."
Speakeasy Culture Today
By wiping out entire industries—aboveground industries, at least—Prohibition caused untold damage to American spirits, bars, and cocktail culture. In many ways, it ushered in a dark age of drinking. Only in the last decade-plus have classic cocktails truly come back into fashion.
And while many of these bars looked to the pre-Prohibition era for cocktail inspiration, they adopted the speakeasy aesthetic for the bars themselves. Trailblazing craft cocktail bars like Milk & Honey and, later, PDT were all about the dim lighting and unmarked entrances—and more than a decade later, bars around the world have taken up the style.
"The idea of the speakeasy is alive and well all over the world, mainly because every single one of us loves to be invited to the exclusive parties no one else can get into," says Gareth Evans.
"There's a lot to be said about taking someone for a drink, knocking on an unmarked door, and being ushered into a dark room for delicious drinks. It reintroduced spirit-forward, moody brown drinks to the world, and encouraged bartenders to look to the past to learn more about their craft, which can never be a bad thing in my book."
Marissa Mazzotta, head bartender at The Shanty in Brooklyn, agrees. "The speakeasy idea became cool and sexy; to be at a speakeasy was to be in the know. And the rise of the speakeasy culture in the 2000's helped change the idea of a bartender as just someone slinging beers and shots," she says, "to an actual craft to be respected."
Prohibition was, ultimately, a policy failure and a short-lived social experiment. It all but destroyed a cocktail culture that preceded it. But a great deal emerged from this short time, too -- from mixers and rum drinks to modern-day "speakeasies" and the very notion of women drinking in them. A time of alleged abstention left a century-long impact on the way we drink today.